Should parents pay for their childrens’ college?: A deliberately controversial post

A common discussion on PF blogs is whether or not parents should pay for a kid’s college education.  The discussants generally fall into two camps:  Yes, we are trying to save for it now (though often they don’t go into why) and here’s how, and No, we think kids should pay for their own education mainly to help build their character.

We at Grumpy Rumblings will flesh out some of these reasons, and discuss why we think some of the reasons may be more or less valid.

Yes:  Graduating without student loans is a great gift and can provide kids with a head start in life once they graduate.  They will also be better able to concentrate on their studies if they’re not forced to work all the time or go into massive debt.

No:  Kids whose parents pay may not take college seriously.  They may be more likely to goof off or drink or skip class etc.  College is expensive and parents should take care of their own wants and needs– kids can work or take out loans.  Learning how to pay off college loans isn’t a bad lesson.

Yes or No depending on your perspective:  Some of the differences in beliefs about paying for college seem to be in part class based.  One potential effect of parents paying for college is that students can follow what they’re interested in in terms of majors without having to think about how profitable that major is.  If you come from a privileged background, then being able to major in anything, even a *gasp* humanities major, is a benefit.  If you come from a less-privileged background, this may be considered to be a waste.  Similarly being allowed to experiment with different majors can be seen as a plus or a minus depending on the parent’s viewpoint.  Is college a coming of age experience vs. career preparation?  Is the goal to make the most money or to leave the world a better place?  One’s view of college depends greatly on one’s background.

What we think:

We do not believe that the best way to get kids to care about the value of an education is to make them pay for it.  The value of education in general can be instilled at home from an early age.  And if it doesn’t take, then we doubt that forcing the kid to work 40 hour weeks is going to make hir any more likely to attend class.  In fact, we think it’s going to make hir more likely to sleep through class if ze attends at all.  If that’s the case, then perhaps ze should be doing something else besides going to school.  #1’s parents paid 100% for her college education.  #2’s parents left her with a reasonable loan load.  They both took college very seriously, seriously enough to get into good graduate schools.

One thing that really bothers us is when wealthy parents refuse to pay at all for college.  The ones who value fancy cars and exotic vacations over paying for some of the kid’s tuition.  The problem is that when your parents are poor, you are pretty likely to get financial aid at some portion of the schools to which you’re accepted.  However, if you’re rich, that’s much less likely to happen unless you luck into some pretty amazing merit or sports scholarships.  That means a poor kid may be on the hook for 10K in subsidized loans after graduation, but a rich kid 40+K unsubsidized from a state school or upwards of 200K from a private school.  Even if the rich kid has had more opportunities K-12, it still seems to be an unfair burden to be on the hook for full-tuition with four years of unsubsidized loans.  Less wealthy parents should obviously secure their retirements first and their kids are likely to not come out with as horrific loan burdens precisely because of financial aid.

No matter what you decide, it’s a good idea to let kids know early on what to expect.  I felt so bad for my friends who applied and got in awesome places but then had to do 2 years at community college because their parents figured Hawaii and/or a new car was a better deal that year than paying some of the tuition at Dartmouth or Notre Dame.  On the other hand, knowing that I could go anywhere because my parents had been saving their whole lives opened up a world that would eventually propel me into a higher economic class.  If I hadn’t known I could go anywhere (and given how little money we had growing up, I wouldn’t have assumed I could), I might not have aimed as high.

Update:  Cherish the Scientist asks about her situation.

Do you think these reasons are valid?  Where do you stand on the paying for kid’s college education question?

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57 Responses to “Should parents pay for their childrens’ college?: A deliberately controversial post”

  1. Karen Says:

    I don’t have any kids so it isn’t an issue for me. But, my parents solved this (sort of) by agreeing to pay for half of our college education if we went to a State school. It seemed a very fair deal to me especially as they had 4 kids with only 5 years between us. Unfortunately, my dad lost his job midway through my first year of college, so I ended up paying for it myself – but I was determined to finish – and was the first person in my family to get a college degree.

  2. New Kid on the Hallway Says:

    I don’t think you have to pay for your college education to value it. But I was very lucky to have my parents pay for the whole thing (at a very very expensive prestigious school, precisely to ensure I had/kept access to the economic class in which I had been raised, which was a higher class than my parents had been raised in). And I think I valued the experience just as much as if I’d been paying (did well in college and now have three additional graduate degrees, so…). So I *would* say that, wouldn’t I?

    I have a friend (from grad school, now a prof) who paid her way through the state college with scholarships and has made clear she’s fairly horrified that I never had to pay for any of it. Her brother agonized over whether/how much to pay for his daughters’ college. It literally would never occur to me that parents *wouldn’t* pay for as much of the costs as they could (which he could; it’s one thing if the family is struggling to come up with the money, but that wasn’t the case). But I suspect a lot of this is regional (and classed) – I grew up in a New England town where everyone tried to go to Harvard/MIT/the Ivies/the little Ivies and not getting into those schools was considered a fate worse than death; my friend grew up in the very middle of the midwest where if you went to college at all the local state university was good enough, dammit. A student could pay for the whole thing at the latter, not so much at the former.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We also grew up in the middle of the midwest. And it is true that our state schools are EXCELLENT (seriously– the students at the regional state where my mom teaches get a hell of a lot better undergraduate education than those at the flagship R1 where I teach– in fact, in general midwestern state students in our graduate program blow those from our region’s R1s away, even those from directional schools), sometimes private schools are less expensive once financial aid is factored in, and depending on the school they’re sometimes able to offer things publics can’t (small classes, prestige etc.).

      I’m not sure how much of the not paying is regional though– I’ve definitely seen undergrad East Coasters whose parents had the same beliefs. Class is definitely at play, however, even if not strictly income-based class (hence the rant on high-income parents who refuse to pay).

      • New Kid on the Hallway Says:

        yes, it may be more the little elite enclave where I grew up than New England per se. I do think there’s a bigger fetishism of college rankings/prestige in New England because there are so many private colleges (who live or die by the rankings) there, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to being willing to pay for school.

      • Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

        A friend of mine several years younger got into the same expensive private engineering school I went to, and was weighing whether to go there vs. a free ride at her state U (800 undergrads vs I dunno, 30K?). Horrifyingly, her parents and sister were both trying to convince her to pick State U so that they could get their kitchen remodeled and so parents could buy the sister(s) a condo near State U. I am so *proud* of my friend for choosing the engineering school despite all that pressure. I just don’t get peoples’ priorities sometimes…

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I feel a little guilty because I convinced a friend to go to your school for 4 years instead of the State U where he would have graduated with a fancy degree in 2 years (or he could have gone to the air force academy on a full ride). He had a pretty rough time of it and failed a bunch of classes and didn’t end up with the degree he started with and doesn’t need that degree for his job. However, he had a great social life in college and I understand has a wonderful life now, even if it doesn’t use his degree at all, so I shouldn’t feel guilty.

        Actually, I pushed 3 friends to go to your school, and for only one of them was it a really good match, though I feel less guilty about person #2 because she did meet her husband there. And at the *time* she was astronomy crazy, not psychology crazy (or archaeology crazy).

      • Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

        @N&M – it is definitely not a good fit for everyone, that’s for sure. The social aspect is what kept me there through failed classes and feeling like I was stupid 99% of the time ;) But I think it’s one of those “don’t know until you try it” things – some people hated the social atmosphere and for others, it felt like home. Others figured out they wanted to study something not offered there and transferred out early. I just hate the idea of someone obviously talented and interested in science being convinced not to even try it because the family wanted more “stuff”. Sigh.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I think I would let my kids go to the rival competitor, but not that school… mainly because there’s just so much more mental and emotional support from adults at the rival school, even though it’s so much bigger. (If push came to shove, I’m sure I wouldn’t forbid it, especially if they’re of college age… but it’s still a bit worrisome from a mom perspective. I’m glad I chose my SLAC over it.)

  3. Linda Says:

    I’d love to see a historical study of this exact question. For the past few years whenever I think about this question, I’ve suspected it is based on a practice that started in the post-war boom years and has been codified in our culture as the ideal: good middle-class parents should pay for their child’s college education.

    My parents did not pay for my education and it was only through my persistence and desire for a university degree (in four years, no less) that I was able to get one. There wasn’t a huge emphasis placed on getting a college education in my family. While my father had a bachelors degree, he earned it taking night classes and ended up not really applying it to his job. I understand he was hoping to move off the floor of the paint factory and into the lab, but his little BS in environmental science wasn’t enough so he continued on as a foreman. (Or it could be because he was perceived as an asshole at work…who knows.)

    My sister earned her BA in a similar way (afternoon/night classes) after working for several years and having children. Unless my stepmother is counted, I’m the only one in my biological family unit with a masters degree. (Stepmom has a PhD in nursing and teaches; she earned her masters and PhD after marrying my dad.)

    I think if one comes from an academic background or a family where the parents have a college degree that it is encouraged/assumed that the children will earn degrees, too. It’s these families that are wrestling with the question of “to pay or not to pay;” I suspect that many working class families are happy to see their kids go to college, but don’t set an expectation for it. And I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong, either.

    We all need plumbers, electricians, sanitation workers, police, road construction workers, roofers, bakers, chefs, etc. None of these occupations requires a four-year college degree, although most require post-secondary school education, certifications/licensing, apprenticeship, etc. Desire/drive for education doesn’t necessarily mean college degree.

    So: isn’t this sort of a middle-middle class or upper-middle class concern? And how did the middle class deal with post-secondary education prior to the post-war boom years? Once dad got a degree on the GI bill, did it become the newest extension to the American dream/expected norm for the middle class?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Those are all excellent questions. What do our readers think?

      • chacha1 Says:

        I think it’s DEFINITELY a class concern. College education, as we know it, was not even a consideration for anyone but the upper class until after WWII. Most career advancement happened through on-the-job training, experience, and contacts, not from logging an MBA.

        And it seems we are really in the midst of a college backlash right now because in those 60 years we’ve gone from “can run a company with a high-school diploma” to “can’t get a job as a file clerk with a B.A.”

  4. becca Says:

    This conversation is baffling to me.
    My parents saved at least since I was very young, and I still qualified for work-study and ended up with loans despite doing the two-years at a community college then transferring to a state school.

    They’d be very manageable loans if employment was steady in the biomedical research field, and I’m unspeakably grateful to my parents, but the experience (and the cold hard numbers- college tuition doubles every 10 years) have convinced me it will be impossible for me to save enough to give my kid more options than I had. I’ll do my darnest to save so he can at *least* have some route to college, but more than that is dependent on his earning many magic scholarships (not routine boring ones like I had), or landing a university job with a tuition benefit.

    Realistically, it doesn’t matter if you *want* to ‘pay for all of college’ if you know you will never, ever be able to.

    That said, it’s abominable for parents to not even fill out the FAFSA for their kid. I had a friend whose parents wouldn’t even do that, and it was a huge burden for him. And it’s not much better to say “we can’t help with college” when you’ve got a boat in the garage.

    • rented life Says:

      My mom did my FASFA my senior year of college and *turned down* all my TAP money. I was pissed, I needed that for books. My SIL messed up her daughter’s FASFA too…I’m fine if parents won’t fill it out, they don’t always help. Give the kid the info and let them go to financial aid.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, it is a BIG problem when poor parents refuse to give the info for the FAFSA. It’s ok if they don’t fill out the actual form, but the kid needs the tax info… it’s worth tens of thousands of dollars in aid.

  5. rented life Says:

    My parents paid for part of my college….Because I went to a private school the first year that seemed to justify them not paying for the remaining state school years. (They did pay for my rent, which I appreciated, but I was on my own for groceries, cell phone, gas money, etc.) My brother’s college was paid in full, including rent, groceries, cell bill, etc. And he took an extra year (because of changing major). He graduated with no debt AND they gave him a new car that cost them the same amount as what remains on my loans. I was given $100 when I graduated. I dealt with grad school on my own. My parents frequently complained about how much my brother cost, but didn’t bother to make him pay for anything and also don’t understand how us kids feel like we’ve been treated differently. (Was it because I got married? Because I didn’t ask them to pay for that either, AND we had to do it their way because they paid, not mine…yeah I’m a touch bitter.)

    Husband and I have talked about this–his parents helped him with nothing. We both feel we learned a lot about money, responsibility, etc. (We weren’t really taught money lessons at home, especially him). We also know that my brother, who has been given the great gift of NO DEBT to start his life and complains to about money and never having enough to move out of mom and dad’s…(give me a break!) He doesn’t see the gift he’s been given nor does he understand why we struggle so much. Husband doesn’t want to pay for our (currently non-existent so our minds may change) child, because we’ve had to struggle so much financially, that we really need the freedom to put us (and our retirement, which is total crap right now) first. I want to at least pay for the kid’s food and rent because I know how hard it is to worry about that–and frankly I don’t want my kid to worry about eating or a roof, I want them to stay focused on school work. (Husband had to work 40 hours AND go to school the first time he went and he did not do as well as he could have.) We’ve also both seen kids forced to go to higher ed that weren’t ready/didn’t want to be there, and we never want to force that either…(that’s a seperate issue of course).

    So I have no idea what we’d pay for. Right now our retirement is my first concern. I’d look into 529’s and stuff when we’re ready to have a kid and I’d want to know how others are saving but I can’t see myself paying for school at the expense of ourselves and our future. My parents complained how they could never do anything–vacation, home improvements, small things for themselves, because they had my brother’s tuition bill to pay. For the record my parents stopping going on vacation shortly after I entered second grade. I want to find a balance our parents never seemed to figure out.

    • rented life Says:

      Sorry to complain so much…this is a huge sore spot for me (for us really) because we’ve been struggling so much lately with our debt (over $500/month in student loans alone) and everyone assumes at my age I should be able to afford to do all this stuff, even my parents.

      • chacha1 Says:

        Sorry your parents were so little help to you. :-( So unfair when one kid gets the free ride and the other kid gets crap.

    • Janette Says:

      You are “the girl” and got married. You become your husband’s responsibility. That is what I “hear” from your entire comment.

      I lived through one of those families as well. All three of “the girls” have BA degrees in something useful. We are all successful. Both “boys” are debt ridden and never finished college. All that help doesn’t always work out.

      We saved the same amount for both children. It was enough for state u. One went to a military academy. We gave the money in the end. The other flunked out of two schools and is now a happy sales person.
      I guess it is the temperament of the child in the long run.

  6. Pamela Says:

    When I got a job as a teenager, I had to put at least ten percent into my college account. (I ended up putting in a third, since it was easier for me to allocate 1/3 to personal savings, 1/3 to college savings, and 1/3 for spending money). If I wanted to go to grad school, I’d be on my own. (I live in New England.) I went to the state school–which is very good–and when I did go to grad school, I was able to do so because my employer paid the tuition.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I do wonder why more people whose parents can’t/won’t help aren’t expected to save some of their earnings for college. Might make those extra sweaters or the new car seem like less of a need. But maybe not… not everybody has the same values. (And financial aid is a bit unfair towards the child’s savings compared to parents’)

  7. Cloud Says:

    I went through college on a full tuition scholarship, but my parents helped out with living expenses- I only ever had to work about 10 hours per week. I had a friend in college whose mother couldn’t afford to pay much and whose father didn’t believe in pay for a child’s college, and also refused to fill out financial aid forms. He even took the money his parents gave him to pay for her college and spent it on other things. I thought he was an ass then and I really think he was an ass now. She struggled to make it through, and couldn’t concentrate on her studies the way I could concentrate on mine.

    We have 529 accounts open for both our kids. We opened them within a couple of months of birth. One of the things we plan to do with the money we save when we stop paying for day care is to increase what we pay into those accounts. We’d like to be able to pay for an education anywhere, but I’ll be happy if we can cover in state tuition and living expenses, and then expect the kids to help make up the difference if they want to go somewhere else. I haven’t run the numbers to see whether we are on track- we’ll probably do that once we see how having one kid in school rather than day care shakes out financially.

    • GMP Says:

      We have a similar plan — once we paid off the car, that payment was put aside for college. When the daycare expenses are done, that money goes towards college. We plan to pay as much as we can for all three of them (that’s where having them spaced out a bit is a good thing). Once the house is paid off too, we can take an equity loan to help pay for tuition. Ideally, we would like to pay tuition, room and board and books for each kid, and if they want spending money they should get a job for a few hours every week.

      I went to college overseas, so it’s a different ballgame. I had what amounts to a full scholarship here, didn’t have to pay tuition at all and lived at my parents; I earned money on the side mostly by tutoring and teaching high-school near the end.

  8. SP Says:

    I definitely plan to help, if I can, and it is likely that I will be able to. I have a long time to figure out the details of what that will mean though.

    My parents helped only a little, but they didn’t NOT pay because they wanted me to “build character” or value the education. They just didn’t have the ability to support 3 kids’ college educations for 4 years each. I worked part-time, but not every semester. I always placed school far above work in priorties. It never was an issue. I picked a practical career path, and I took out reasonable loans that are not at all a struggle to pay back. My school was affordable. My loans helped me balance work/school.

    I do agree that I view humanties-type major’s as luxuries. It isn’t that I wouldn’t LIKE college to have been primarily a “coming of age” experience, but I would have had to pay for that for a long time. Not worth it. It was both a “coming of age” experience as well as making me qualified for a job.

  9. First Gen American Says:

    I think the kid should have some skin in the game and pay for some of it…but not to the extent I did…in which I was the kid falling asleep in class, and not because of too much partying, but double shifts at work.

    I plan on paying some, but there will be strings attached, like working summers, keeping a certain GPA, etc.

    • rented life Says:

      A student of mine had explained to me that her dad (who is very well off) was willing to pay for her education only if she kept a 3.5 or higher GPA. (She was more than capable of this.) She worked hard and even graduated a year early. I’m not sure that’d work for everyone, but she did well…she also has a go-getter personality anyway, so I think she would have done well no matter who paid.

  10. Leah Says:

    I’m a bit biased, because my parents did pay for my education (and out of cash flow). My mom sat down with me and said “this is what we can afford, so let’s make it work.” I went to a private school where I had earned a 50% scholarship, so I think the cost was somewhere around $15k a year including room and board. I paid for my books and all my pocket money, and I did do work study at 5 hours a week during college to supplement summer earnings.

    I majored in a science (but the least lucrative science) because it was interesting to me. I appreciated having time to take English lit, and I studied abroad to take art classes. After school, not having loans meant I was free to take any job that would pay enough to cover living expenses. That flexibility was awesome for me. Yes, it has taken me 7 years post-undergrad (and four years of various grad schools, one MS, and almost at an MAT) to finally stumble into a career. But I also did 7 years of learning, exploring, and figuring out what makes me happy and fulfilled. I’m glad I had that time to look around instead of feeling pressured to take a job to pay off my loans.

    My husband had $35k in loans when he graduated, and he went to get his MS partially to put off the loans and figure out what to do. After his MS, he had to get a good job to pay those expenses. It has worked out really well for him, and he is also quite happy. But we’re now committed to paying down the loans (his and mine from the MAT) at an accelerated rate so we can have our freedom back.

    I mostly come down on the side of parents paying for school. At the least, I think parents should make what contributions they can. And, above all, no matter what, they should talk to kids about the cost of school. Sitting with my mom and crunching the numbers helped me realize what was important. Mt. Holyoke may have been beautiful and lovely with neat opportunities, but no opportunities were worth the $60k+ in loans I would have needed to go there because the cost was above my parent’s contribution abilities. I wish everyone would have similar conversations in deciding what school works for them.

  11. Alyssa Says:

    My parents paid for the first four years of university (I took five years, as I switched majors in the middle of my first). Thank goodness, because I wasn’t able to get loans until my 5th year (my parents made too much money, so I couldn’t apply without putting their income on the application until I was out of high school for four years).

    DH’s parents did not pay for university, but they did help him with living expenses during the school year (he lived in residence even though he went to the university in his home city). He worked a labor-intensive job during the summer and also on weekends during the school year to pay for tuition, books, spending money, etc..

    Our plan is to pay for our child(ren)’s first degree/certificate/diploma. Depending on where we live (currently we live in a town with a very good university and a few colleges), we won’t pay for additional costs if they choose to go to a school outside the city.

  12. Leigh Says:

    I’m torn on this. My parents paid for my undergrad in full and I greatly appreciate that. I don’t think it was something my parents thought about until fairly close to the time of me going – neither of them went. There was a rule that if you failed, you were on the hook for the rest of your education. I didn’t test that rule, but my sibling did and my parents kept on paying for the education (after forcing said sibling to move home for awhile and work). In some ways, it felt like the cost of the education was held over my sibling’s head and I don’t want to do that to my hypothetical future children. My parents let me go anywhere I wanted (within reason). They couldn’t have afforded MIT or the Ivies, but I had plenty of great schools to choose between that they could afford.

    That said, both my sibling and I would have been unable to get *any* financial aid because our parents made and had “too much” money. My sibling probably wouldn’t have gone to college or would have ended up with a LOT in loans (I’m guessing close to six figures) if our parents hadn’t have paid. I definitely would have gone anyway and because of the high-paying internships in my field, I wouldn’t have ended up with much more than $30k in loans. I could have also made different decisions along the way to reduce that even further before graduation. I have friends whose parents didn’t pay for college, but “let” their kids live at home with free room and board, a car to use and gas and insurance paid for, which cut out probably half the cost of their education, though with a terrible commute.

    I think that I would want to educate my children on how much college will cost, how much they can fairly expect to earn with various degrees, what their career prospects are, etc. I’m not sure that a BFA is worth the money, or some BAs. That said, neither my parents nor I had any idea (or at least I don’t think we did) when I went to college that I was going into a lucrative field (engineering/computer science).

    As for “Kids whose parents pay may not take college seriously. They may be more likely to goof off or drink or skip class etc.” – I think that this is partially a personality thing, but also partially how your parents raise you. It took my sibling a lot longer to mature on this than it did me and I was younger than normal when I went off to college. I just wasn’t the type of person to skip classes, period, regardless of who was paying. If you were raised with money, you might not be used to having to work for things. It’s like one of my high school teachers said that the B students were more likely to do well in university than the A students because the B students learned how to work in high school, but not all of the A students did.

  13. bogart Says:

    The succinct answer to your question is that my own college education was (mostly) paid for, and as I understand the universe, I would therefore be reneging on an inter-generational commitment if I did not myself pay for the next generation’s college education. More generally, I think it is a cost-effective transfer for educated/secure parents to pay for their upcoming, not-so-educated-or-secure offspring to get a secure footing, which in my universe usually means a college education. Of course, if the parents don’t themselves have security, that changes things (and clearly, moral hazards abound).

    Except for some loans, my mom paid my tuition, fees, books, and basic living expenses; any paid work I did was for “extras.” Out of curiosity, I ran the numbers, and in today’s dollars my out-of-state at good-state-university tuition ran about $12K/year; my get-a-job classmates (I went straight to grad school) mostly expected to earn about $55K straight out of school (really — but they were either engineers or going to work in DC or both. Still, it is a depressing commentary on the stagnant economy); and I graduated with the equivalent (today) of $17K in debt (which I paid off in grad school). My mind boggled at the cost of my education and I was therefore motivated to do well; I finished with a double major (honors in one) and a minor in 3.5 years (not strictly true, but my last semester all I was doing was writing an honors thesis, and I was then working a job for pay and supporting myself), and I’d say I worked hard, but I didn’t. I mean, I did, but not in a woe-is-me sort of way; I just stayed organized, took 1 or 2 extra courses per semester (I realized quickly that this was incrementally free, at least at that school and that time, and thus good value), went to class, and enjoyed what I was doing. Oh, and I took a semester abroad (also at mom’s expense) and none of those credits transferred, though I did come in with about a semester’s worth of credits from AP and college courses I’d already taken.

    Halcyon days.

    I married my husband and acquired a college-bound stepkid (well, two, but one matriculating that year) the same year I earned my Ph.D. and thus, including the loans I acquired as a student myself, paid someone’s tuition continuously from the time I was 18 until I turned 35. I regret that my DH told his kids they had to go our in-state schools — we have good ones; they might have chosen them anyway (or we might have assessed funding options and decided those were all we could afford), and they did fine, but I don’t think we should have limited their options up front.

    My brother went to a lavishly expensive institution for a year (also at my mother’s expense), decided it wasn’t for him, left and finished up at a state university. Some would say that was a waste of money, but my sense is it allowed him to learn early that a dream he had thought he wanted to pursue (he went for a particular and fairly specialized — not to mention impractical — field of study), he didn’t, and so, not to spend years agonizing over not having had the opportunity.

    I do think what you do while you’re there (i.e. whether you actually pursue an education or not) matters far more than where you go, but also that having the opportunity to go to a particular place (e.g. my brother’s case) can matter, even if it doesn’t “pay off” in the conventional sense. But, again, that is contingent on resources being available.

  14. Meredith Says:

    I agree that whatever route you go with, it needs to be communicated from a reasonably early age. My husband’s parents never helped at all (in any way–no FAFSA-form-filling-out help here), but he always knew this at least. My parents loaned us some, but I always wished they had discussed it with us more ahead of time so I could have made a more informed decision (would never have have dreamed of going to a private school if I had understood the financial implications better!).

  15. femmefrugality Says:

    I ABSOLUTELY AGREE. You guys say it so well. I think you should do all you can to help them, but if you’ve done it and it’s still not enough you shouldn’t feel guilt-racked or dip into your retirement savings to do so. If you’ve got boats and go on vacation every two months, though, PUH-LEEZE. Make a sacrifice and give your kid the best gift they could ever receive.

    The kids who are going to become crazy binge drinkers in college are going to do it either way. At least in my opinion from what I’ve seen. I completely agree that instilling the value of an education young is the best way to prevent it.

    • Leigh Says:

      Totally agree. I saw friends who were paying their own way and friends whose parents were binge drink. I also saw both sides of the kids who really cared about school.

  16. Viola Says:

    I think this is an interesting question, but I often feel like the issue of scholarships is left out. I knew from an early age that I would be paying for my own higher education, but my parents also made it clear that the better I did in school, the more (merit-based) scholarships I would be eligible for (we were middle class, so I didn’t pursue need-based scholarships). I definitely saw this as my responsibility and my way of “paying” for college. They were also very willing to help with the FAFSA and provide any other financial information I needed for scholarship applications. So, they didn’t pay for college, but they prepared me to be able to pay for it myself. I graduated from a private, liberal arts school with about $8,000 in debt, and that included a semester abroad. I did spend a good bit of time applying to scholarships my senior year of high school, but I think it worked out pretty well. How do the Grumpies think that encouraging kids to work towards/apply for lots of scholarships should fit into this discussion?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Scholarships are very dependent on your SES… they’re actually not worth much if you have a lot of need-based aid because for many schools the school will take away an equivalent portion of your grant-aid for every scholarship you get. (Mine was nice and only cut 50%.) If you don’t have any grant money from the school then they’re worth more.

      So for example, a 2K scholarship at a 40K/year school that is giving you 35K of grant aid because you’re poor turns into 5K you pay, 2K scholarship, and 33K grant aid. If you’re on the hook for the full 40K, it’s a bit more valuable, but you still have to pay 38K. (Similarly, if you’re at a 10K/year school instead, the 2K may be more valuable proportion-wise.)

      • Viola Says:

        Yes, it is a good point that scholarships with have different weights depending on your SES – that was an excellent example. I was certainly privileged enough that I didn’t have any need-based aid for them to take away (although my parents were terrible savers, so they didn’t actually have any money to give me for college). I also applied to a lot of schools (as well as to a lot of scholarships) and went to the one that had the best merit-based scholarship aid. I did inquire at one school like the one Leigh describes (no merit-based financial aid), and did not even apply after hearing that. My tuition was always completely covered by scholarships, including merit-based aid from the school itself, so it seemed worth the effort to me, but I imagine the generosity of different schools has changed a lot (just like the tuition they are charging!).

    • Leigh Says:

      My school only had need-based scholarships unless your (in college) GPA was basically perfect. I got one merit scholarship in my first year that paid for half the first semester’s tuition, but that was it. That kind of has me put off the idea of encouraging my kids to earn scholarships, but maybe the schools they’re interested in in another couple decades will offer more than mine did?

      • Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

        When I was in college, they had no merit-based scholarships for incoming freshmen, but would give them out once you’d been there for a year, but you had to pretty much have a perfect GPA, as you mentioned. Now they’ve changed and do give out merit-based scholarships to exceptional applicants, to entice them to matriculate, but you have to be the best of the best to get it. But my point is that schools will change, though good point about external merit scholarships reducing the need-based aid you’re eligible for.

  17. bookishbiker Says:

    I started college in the late 1980s, right before the mega spike in tuition/fees started. I went to a very good college in New England though it’s not nationally known. My parents worked out the following plan: my first year, tuition cost 12k/year (I think that was tuition only but I’m not certain; now, 20+ years later tuition alone runs 35k/year). I would be responsible for 25% up front every year, and 25% after graduation, and would also have to come up with all my books/spending money.

    Fortunately for me, they didn’t adjust as prices went up. I didn’t work during the school year (I didn’t have a car, employment opportunities were extremely limited off-campus, and I didn’t qualify for on-campus employment – I suspect if I hustled more I MAY have found something but can’t say for certain). I nearly killed myself each summer working two low- or minimum-wage jobs to earn the requisite 3k + spending money for the fall term; I could usually pick up some hours over Christmas to replenish my spending money for the spring.

    When I graduated I would have been 12k in debt to them, but they revealed my grandparents had given them 3k toward my college costs, which they graciously credited to my account. That meant I finished college owing 9k zero-interest to my parents. Of course I got a job making $8.50/hour, but I paid $300 in rent and took public transit, so I actually felt pretty wealthy. I paid off the debt in under six years, and I do think it was really good for me to have to work two jobs in my summers. It proved to me that working hard wouldn’t kill me, and also that making not-a-lot of money is not all that fun!

    So I think that’s a good middle road parents should consider, but only if they can afford it. Four years later my parents’ situation had changed and they couldn’t do the same plan with my sister (at the much more expensive school she’d gotten into) unless she got major scholarships, and she opted to go to the state school instead of pursuing that angle.

  18. NoTrustFund Says:

    I definitely feel responsible for paying for as much of college as we can afford. With a baby and a toddler it scares me to think how much college will cost in 15+ years. Right now we save as much as we can after retirement savings and daycare expenses. As our oldest moves up in daycare and price decreases I have increased the amount we save each month.

    My parents and I shared the cost of college (with them paying as much as they could and being more than generous) but I was on my own for grad school. I think we’ll probably do the same.

    Such an emotional topic. Also tough because college costs have sky rocketed so much. My parents went to school during a time when a summer of work would pay for at least a semester of school. I feel so lucky that that realized how much times have changed.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We were on our own for grad school too, which makes sense… grad school really was vocational training for us. If we were super wealthy, maybe that could have been a coming of age experience too… a fun phd just for the heck of it!

  19. darchole Says:

    I think my situation is a little different than most people posting, in that I never went to graduate school (however because of where I work I have taken graduate level classes), so I’m obviously not on the TT, and I didn’t move after graduating college.

    Considering how much I make now, if my parents hadn’t helped pay for college, I would be paying probably 25% of my take home pay in student loans instead of the 10% I pay now, even going to a state school. I’m lucky in that my SO makes a lot more money than I do, so we live well, but if it was just me, then I would probably be still living with my parents, or with 2-3 other people, even 10 years later.

    On the other hand, because of where I currently live and what I do, I can’t say getting a degree significantly helped my job prospects. While for my position, people usually have a BS, they don’t always. Also because of where I live and what I do, there really isn’t chance for advancement to a better paying job. (Old manufacturing city where the major business is no longer here, very few jobs in the STEM fields, major brain drain.) I’m making a lot more than minimum wage, but my father, who didn’t graduate HS, makes more money than I do working at one of the trades/union job, then I do with a degree.

    For people in this kind of situation, the more important question becomes not who will pay for college, but will college (and the debt you will end up with) actually help you in the long run? I don’t have much debt because of my parents helping me pay for college, so I think having a degree will help in the long run, especially if we move to a large city with more jobs in the STEM fields. If I knew I was going to end up with a lot of debt and still living with my parents many years later because they couldn’t help? Then I probably would have chosen something different.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      This kind of gets back to the question: What is college for?

      For my partner and his siblings, for example, it was a ticket out of their tiny dying town, among other things.

      • darchole Says:

        Very true. But that question has to be answered along with how is going to college getting paid for.

        And I thought I was going to leave this place and not be working for the university I’m currently employed at, but things didn’t work out that way. (my current workplace is actually referenced in the original post, and I have to say the academics aren’t that great here, most people come more for name recognition)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Notre Dame has a great econ department! (The “new” econ dept, anyway… not the one they just disbanded.) So does Dartmouth. :)

  20. Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

    I was lucky enough that my parents planned for and paid for my entire undergrad education even though it took me a bit longer than 4 years. They made it clear that any graduate degree was up to me to finance (fortunately PhD progs in my field were usually free via research fellowships and whatnot). They also made it clear that I was to go to the best place I could get into, and I’m forever grateful because at 15 (when I applied) I did not have the foresight or maturity to think about cost, the future, career prospects, etc.

    So while I’m resentful sometimes about the amount of control they had in this huge decision, my life wouldn’t have turned out nearly as well as it did had they not pushed me so hard.

    My career is not in the field I studied (and I abandoned my PhD program with a ‘consolation prize’ Master’s degree) but it most definitely helped me to go to the school I chose, with respects to content and “learning how to learn” and facing big challenges.

    I also would have gotten lost in the crowd had I gone to Big State U for free which was also an option for me. I wasn’t very outgoing, and wouldn’t have fought for the limited opportunities there. Where I went, there were so few undergrads that *anyone* could get a research job starting as a freshman. *All* of my summer jobs in college were doing research in my field, for (GREAT) pay, while my high school friends were working min wage jobs just trying to get some cash together to finance more college.

    So I lucked out. Hubby had an interesting experience whereby his parents paid in full until he decided to take a year off, and they said if he did that they would not pay when he returned. So he had to finance that last year himself, and thus had some loans, etc. so he got a taste of “pay for it yourself” but he was over 21 at that point, too, and very motivated to finish.

    It’s a priority for us to pay for our kids’ college in full, wherever they can go. If we have to take out loans, so be it. We still put away college money (and our own retirement money) when one of us isn’t working, and realize we are lucky to be able to do that. But we don’t have a boat, or a vacation home, and we rarely go on “big vacations” that involve airplanes, so I guess it is a priority for us to save for things like this.

    I am *so* irritated when my similar-SES coworkers, etc decide that they’re not going to save for their kids’ college as some sort of “teach them a lesson” thing and then spend $ on boats, designer clothes, McMansion, sports car etc. Or just decide that State U is enough so only save for that and figure the kid will “work it out”. More so when both parents work in the same lucrative techie industry I do. Grrr. It seems to happen a lot around here, and I’m not sure why.

  21. hush Says:

    You are so right – this is a class issue, big time.

    My heart hurts for all the gifted kids out there who can’t go to Dartmouth or Notre Dame because their low class, nouveau riche parents would rather have a McMansion. Holy hell.

    My parents told me from an early age they knew I was extremely capable and should go to the best college for me. Whatever I eventually chose, they would make it happen financially. And they did. They also deliberately chose to only have one child because they knew they could only afford to do it for one kid. Also, my mom is a super genius but had to quit private college in the 60’s after just one year because her parents refused to prioritize her education – she was not about to let that happen to me.

    I turned down full rides to 2 state schools so I could attend my dream private school – and it was arguably the best decision I ever made. The group of friends I made at an elite college have been extremely helpful to me both personally and professionally.

    My parents scrimped and paid for nearly the whole thing – I also did work/study, earned merit scholarships, worked as a resident assistant to get free room and board, and contributed all of my summer income. I graduated summa cum laude from a top 10 university, then did a top 5 grad program, and my family now makes roughly 6+ times what my parents made (adjusted for inflation). My kids both have well-funded 529 plans. “Movin’ on u-u-up…” If a kid has the dream and the numbers, top schools are well worth it.

    • chacha1 Says:

      Yay to your mom!

      My maternal grandmother fought tooth and nail to have my mother go to college. The battles contributed to my grandparents’ divorce, but Mom was the only kid in her generation, on that side of the family, to finish college. So yay grandma too. :-)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That sounds like my story too, except my parents had two kids.

    • Daniel Says:

      @Hush: That’s very sad that your parents chose to have only one child just so that you could go to your dream school. My parents made it very clear to me from an early age that my goal was to work very hard, get scholarships to pay most of my expenses, and save my dream for graduate school. It never occurred to me that it would be their duty to pay for my college. They said they would help out a bit, but they weren’t going to sacrifice their own retirement for their children’s educations.

      How did it work out? I worked hard, was a National Merit Scholar, and got a full-ride to BYU, a good-but-not-Ivy school. My parents let me live at home one year and paid my dorm expenses one year. I worked construction jobs, computer support jobs, and merchandising jobs to cover my other expenses and graduated debt-free. I did well enough that after working for a couple of years, I got an MBA at Notre Dame on a full-ride scholarship and a JD from another top program, also on full scholarship. I did have debts post grad school, but I had the means to repay them. (My brother, on the other hand, dropped out after one semester, lost his scholarship, later came back, but paid his full expenses for two degrees by working his guts out, and eventually became a very successful writer through many, many more years of hard work.)

      My wife’s parents had 9 kids and he was an English professor at a large state U. They paid only for the first year of college for each kid, and even that was a financial stretch. My wife graduated debt-free with BS/MS from a solid engineering program. Her brother is an anesthesiologist. Her other brother went to Wharton. One of her sisters is preeminent in her field with multiple Fulbright awards, etc. Her parents would tell you that their greatest treasure is their children and grandchildren.

      We will be helping our kids with college, and we live a very modest lifestyle, but we will not be covering the full cost or even close to it. If they want to attend Dartmouth or Notre Dame, they’d better get a scholarship like I did, or defer that dream to graduate school. Once kids turn 18, they are entitled to love and a warm meal and bed when they visit. If you want to help more, that’s nice, but it’s not a duty, and we believe by the time kids finish their BS/BA they should be fully responsible for all of their expenses. Besides, there is lots of evidence that kids who worked hard enough / were smart enough to attend an Ivy but instead attend State U do just as well, with a lot less debt. I work with mostly State U graduates at my company, and many of them make six-figure salaries.

  22. chacha1 Says:

    I also don’t think a kid needs to pay for his/her own college education in order to value it. My sister & I valued a college education because our parents set a very consistent example of valuing education *themselves.* We had a house full of books and regular visits to the library. The periodicals ranged from National Geographic to Car & Driver to Forbes. Our parents were highly likely to spend an evening reading, rather than watching TV. And they both had master’s degrees. It was simply an expectation, in our home, that we would both go on to college.

    That said, it was also an expectation that we would do our best to minimize the cost of going to college. We were expected to get good grades, and to do well on the SATs. Dad offered each of us the same deal: if we went to the hometown school, we’d get the car of our choice at graduation. My sister opted to take a small scholarship, work, and go to an all-girls school in South Carolina. I took the deal since I had a full scholarship at the home college and my next best option was a small scholarship at a very prestigious school, very far away, and I liked the easy option better. I also worked part-time throughout college.

    The money Dad saved on my tuition was basically spent on both of us. My sister got a summer trip to Spain, I got a week in NYC for the Model UN and a summer trip to France. We both thought we got an awesome deal.

  23. myscientificlife Says:

    I’m a little torn about this. I currently have 57K in student loans from undergrad ( I went to state school). My parents paid for part of my first year and I was responsible for the rest. My mom is the youngest of 9 and moved away from home at 16 to work and later moved to Japan (from the Philippines) to provide for her mother and siblings. My dad is the first in his family to graduate from college, and the only reason he could go is because he went into the Marines (he participated in the ROTC program). My grandmother worked 3 jobs just to keep food on the table, so she couldn’t help pay for his school. Both of them worked very hard to be where they are now, so I understand why they would want me to do the same.

    However, it’s a little frustrating to hear details from my dad and his fiance’s 3rd trip to Vegas this year. I also turned down a couple of out of state internships because of the cost of renting an apartment.

  24. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I’m a lover of scholarships so that’d be a big push for me personally. And that starts young. My kids can expect the college talk to start in fifth grade pretty much because middle school is key to high school and high school is key to college. I would like very much to contribute to my kids’ college education in any way I can. Since I knew I’d have a hard time saving money for them for college, I went to work at the private university down here. If I’m still here when it’s my kids turn to go to college I would LIKE to make them this deal: Go to UM for undergrad and I will help you with graduate school costs as much as I possibly can.
    If I couldn’t afford to help my kids financially, I would encourage them to take out student loans if the degree they are looking to get can lead to a job that will make repaying the loans as easy as possible. A sort of ratio if you will. Then again, things change all the time. Who knows what things will look like in ten years when my oldest is set to graduate? Will there have been education reform by then lowering the cost of education? Will education become a luxury? Will the job market shift and not require as much high education or more? So on and so forth.

  25. Candi @ min hus Says:

    Hrmm, I’m torn too. I think students should contribute to their education but not be saddled with the whole thing, not for undergrad anyway. I got a decent amount of academic scholarships, and some grants, and also went to a state school. This helped a huge amount, but didn’t cover everything so what was left was split in thirds and each of my (divorced) parents paid a third, as did I. I also made enough working part time time pay my rent, bills, etc. Because of this I was able to graduate with zero loans, which is extremely awesome. I’m grateful my parents helped, and for the scholarships/grants, but I also think working was important. My parents always valued a college education and taught me to do the same. Plus I watched them struggle to get their own degrees as working adults. Now if I’d had to work full-time to pay for college that would have been a detriment, but as it was I still had time to do activities related to my major and as a junior got a related paid internship that provided experience and a decent wage. Many of my friends who didn’t work at all seemed to waste a lot of time and their parents’ money.

  26. Ask the grumpies: Next stage financial advice | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured Says:

    […] first or in what order.  That is going to depend a lot on your own goals and your own situation.  How much of your children’s education do you plan on funding?  How much financial aid are you […]


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